February 26, 2014
Each farm, big or small, organic or conventional, or somewhere in-between, has a unique story.
Like Holstein spots, no two cows have the exact same pattern, and no two farms have the same histories, management styles, generations behind the farm or overall experiences.
Why does this matter? As the farming population shrinks to only 1 to 2 percent, the average American is about three generations removed from agriculture. This means fewer Americans understand what happens on a farm and where their food comes from and who grows it.
Curiosity and questions about production agriculture, however, are becoming more common among the masses.
This is in part due to the natural interest in where food comes from and agriculture depiction from groups like Compassion over Killing, Mercy for Animals, Animal Liberation Front and most prominently, the Humane Society of the United States, who use scare tactics to gain public trust and push a vegan agenda.
“The people that are against animal ag, or us having the ability to choose what is best for our farms are loud, but they are not the majority. They have time, they have money and they have star power on their side,” explains Carrie Chestnut Mess, better known as Dairy Carrie to her online followers, who spoke at the Landmark Services Cooperative Real Farm Life Summit on Feb. 19.
With constant negative imagery floating around large media, farmers of all kinds must find a way that works for them to tell their individual, transparent story to their network.
“A lot of people think we need to educate these people. We need to educate them on where their food comes from. What do we do instead of educate them? Can we influence our customers?” says Chestnut Mess who chooses to use social media to share her agriculture knowledge by documenting her family’s 100-cow dairy in Lake Mills.
The first step in speaking with consumers is determining who they are, Chestnut Mess says.
“Who are our customers? It’s not who we ship our milk to; our customers are the people in the grocery store. It does not matter what the middle man does, but if the people at the grocery store stop buying dairy, beef or corn flakes, that is when it’s going to come back to us.”
Chestnut Mess, whose blog “The Adventures of Dairy Carrie” has more than 1 million views to date, says there are many ways to tell your farm story.
Social media may be one of the best ways because it can reach a large network of people quickly, allowing them to see inside your farm.
Each person has a unique circle online and not everyone in that knows what you do on a day-to-day basis.
“You don’t have to make it a big production online,” Chestnut Mess advises. “Once a week, you take 2 minutes. Take a picture, or write something about your farm and put it on your personal Facebook page. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, start with what you have.”
When telling your story, whether through blog or Facebook posts, Chestnut Mess recommends avoiding talking points, as adding a personal testimonial makes the facts relatable.
Cassandra Strommen, vice president of market development for Landmark Services Cooperative in Cottage Grove, says if producers are just starting out with social media to tell their story, Facebook is the best platform because of ease of use and reach potential.
But regardless of what platform you choose, the first step is to educate yourself on the capabilities of the social media channel.
Once you know how the outlet works, continue to have fun with the platform as that shows through to followers and most importantly have fun.
“We use Facebook to reach out to connect with not just our members but also non-ag people to teach them about agriculture,” she says of Landmark’s social media plan, which connects with their members and consumers. Along with Facebook, the cooperative uses Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and a blog to tell the agriculture story and connect with their members and agricultural community.
Each communication medium has a different use in their content strategy, just like each would have a different use for a farmer.
Twitter is primarily used to connect with news media; Pinterest, to share their story through pictures and links targeting their female audience; and a blog to share management strategies and longer cooperative and member stories. And YouTube is naturally used for showcasing videos.
“We have used Facebook to humanize who we are, allowed non-members to meet our staff and see our inner workings. Facebook and our blog tell our story in words and pictures, allowing the audience to see who we really are in a space that is not completely human,” Strommen says. “Social media helps us continue to be really transparent in who we are and highlight the success of our members, the new technologies of our team and our involvement in the communities we work.”
If social media is not your thing, Chestnut Mess says there are still many ways to get involved in agvocacy (agriculture advocacy).
For example, her dairy farmer father-in-law Clem Mess, thanks consumers at Kwik Trip when he sees them buying milk. He shakes their hand and tells them he is a dairy farmer.
It is a simple as going to the grocery store and thanking the consumer. Mesa Dairy, the Mess’s farm, does not ship milk to Kwik Trip, but the person buying the product is still a customer of the dairy industry.
“We are real people. We are not magical things in offices somewhere on a factory farm. We are people in their community,” Chestnut Mess says, explaining that sharing the story adds a face behind the food.
Other ways outside of social media to communicate with consumers include becoming active in Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom, discussing your farm with local news media and participating in agriculture-related events that touch the consumer.
“Bottom line is that people want to know their food is safe. That the animals and the earth are being well taken care of, and they have questions. Who do you want to answer those questions?” Chestnut Mess asks.
“The questions are already being answered for us, they have been for years. We are behind the ball. Our customers do not want to hear from organizations and industry groups,” she adds. “Our customers want to hear from the experts, us.”
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